WASHINGTON — The incoming U.S. commander in Afghanistan told a leading Senate Republican recently that he’s not aware of efforts at the Pentagon to lessen the need for future reliance on Russia’s largest arms exporter to supply Afghanistan’s military, but acknowledged that such a relationship “brings inherent risks and dependence on Russia.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is among a strident contingent in both chambers who have long fielded vociferous objections to the more than $1 billion in no-bid contracts awarded to state-owned Rosoboronexport since 2011. President Obama, who removed President Bush’s sanctions against the company in 2010, has used a national security loophole to overrule past congressional efforts to stem the flow of money to the Russian firm, as lawmakers argued that the U.S. shouldn’t be lining the pockets of the supplier to Bashar al-Assad.
Now, the arguments have extra weight in Congress as a Russian-supplied Buk missile system — which, in a macabre coincidence, Rosoboronexport was recently marketing to Malaysia — took down flight MH17 over restive eastern Ukraine near the Russian border last week.
The Pentagon is expecting the last of the 88 Mi-17 helicopters purchased for Afghanistan’s air force to be delivered by this fall, a purchase made on the assessment that the Afghans would be better able to operate and maintain the Russian technology.
Cornyn recently asked Gen. John Campbell, who was confined by the Senate on Wednesday to lead NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, questions about whether “fielding an all-Russian helicopter fleet for the Afghan military fosters an inherent dependence on Russia for the near future,” the challenges of adding U.S.-made helicopters to the Afghan fleet, and what the Defense Department is doing to “reduce the risks of a pure Russian fleet.”
“I agree that fielding an all-Russian Mi-17 helicopter fleet brings inherent risks and dependence on Russia,” Campbell replied. “I was not involved in the decision to field MI-17s over other airframes, but based on my previous time in Afghanistan and from what I have learned in preparation for possible confirmation, I do agree with General [Joseph] Dunford’s current assessment that the Mi-17 is the right choice for Afghanistan and that now is not the time to change course.”
If confirmed, the general added, he would work on a “more detailed answer.”
Lawmakers formally requested last year that the Defense Department explore alternatives to giving business to the Russians.
Campbell told Cornyn that he’s “unaware of the specific measures being taken to reduce the risks of a Russian origin Mi-17 helicopter fleet by the DoD.”
“I do know, however, that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Government of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan will make decisions about aircraft modernization and the future of their fleet that may offer opportunities for foreign military sales (FMS) of American helicopters,” he said.
Again, Campbell vowed that after his confirmation, “I will review and provide my best military advice for possible alternative solutions and FMS while working with my Afghan counterparts.”
“Based on what I know today, I cannot absolutely say that the benefits of introducing US helicopters into the Afghan Air Force would outweigh the risks of maintaining a pure Russian Mi-17 fleet,” the general said. “I do believe that a future decision to seek alternative airframes, parts and maintenance rests in most part with the Afghans — that the Afghans should determine what airframe is best suited for their operations and environment.”
Dunford, the outgoing ISAF commander, told Congress on the morning of the attack on Malaysian Airlines that the relationship with Russia’s arms giant is a necessary one even if it’s the U.S. cutting the checks.
“Without the operational reach of the Mi-17, the Afghan forces will not be successful in providing security and stability in Afghanistan and will not be an effective counterterrorism partner,” Dunford told Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) in his hearing to become the next commandant of the Marine Corps. “And one of the second order effects of that, chairman, which is why I use the word ‘catastrophic,’ is that we’ll also have an adverse impact on our force protection in 2015.”
“Among the assumptions that I make in 2015, is the Afghan Security Forces will contribute to the force protection of coalition forces in 2015. And their ability to do that would be significantly degraded without the Mi-17.”
Dunford argued that even though the latest batch of Mi-17s is bought and paid for, the Pentagon needs to keep dealing with the Russians to secure spare parts for maintenance.
The Appropriations Committee in its latest defense funding bill included a provision drafted by Cornyn to stipulate that no money authorized by the legislation can be used “to enter into a contract, memorandum of understanding, or cooperative agreement with, or make a grant to, or provide a loan or loan guarantee to Rosoboronexport or any subsidiary of Rosoboronexport.”
Connecticut’s congressional delegation has been particularly supportive of the effort to block contracts to Rosoboronexport because of the benefit that could be realized by home-state manufacturer Sikorsky if it got to help supply the Afghans with needed helicopters. The contract awarded to the Russians never went out for bids.
The language gives the Defense secretary a national security loophole to waive the requirements, in consultation with the secretary of State and the director of national intelligence, if he certifies in writing to the appropriate defense committees in Congress that “Rosoboronexport has ceased the transfer of lethal military equipment to, and the maintenance of existing lethal military equipment for, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic,” that Russian forces have withdrawn from Crimea, and that “agents of the Russian Federation have ceased taking active measures to destabilize the control of the Government of Ukraine over eastern Ukraine.”
In other words, a difficult loophole to squeeze through: Russia has already vowed to keep selling arms to Assad, who has kept his grip on power, and Moscow’s intentions on Ukraine are likewise crystal-clear.
Rosoboronexport was notably excluded from the latest round of Russia sanctions announced by Obama the day before MH-17 went down, though eight other Russian defense firms were targeted as punishment for the Kremlin’s continued assault on Ukraine.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters last Friday he was “not aware of that specific request from the department to keep that company off the list.”
Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Obama earlier this week to impose broad sanctions on Russia’s defense sector — especially its top dog.
“President Putin may have publicly stated that all sides should allow an investigation into the downed airliner, but Russia’s actions belie his words,” the chairmen wrote. “These contemptible actions cannot go unanswered. We strongly urge you to aggressively exercise your authorities under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and other relevant statutes to impose immediate broad sanctions against Russia’s defense sector, including state-owned Rosoboronexport, in order to prevent Russia from providing weaponry, equipment, or assistance and training to separatists in Ukraine.”